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Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Feminism, Culture Wars & Censorship

Published on Oct 05, 2004 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by FrontPageMagazine.com

The Truth is No Longer "Politically Correct" at Duke, Round II

[On Sept. 28, Duke scholar and FrontPage writer Phyllis Chesler wrote an open letter to Duke President Richard Brodhead challenging his decision to allow the Palestinian Solidarity Movement to hold its annual conference there later this month. The following is a response to Chesler from Duke's Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations John F. Burness. Chesler's response follows.]

* * *

John F. Burness
Senior Vice President for Public Affairs
Duke University

Dear Mr. Burness:


I am pleased that you responded to my letter but also disappointed that President Brodhead has chosen not to respond. However, since you quote him in your letter on a very substantive point, I will assume that your letter represents his views as well.

I am gratified that you "do not dispute (my) words, 'Free' speech is not always ' true' speech. Universities have an obligation to teach the truth as much as they may also wish to model tolerance for all speech, including that which bears no relationship to the truth." President Brodhead's view is this: "All ideas are not equal, but it is a foundational principle of American life that all ideas should have an equal opportunity to be expressed...when universities get into the business of suppressing speech, however vile, it lends credence to the notion that it is a legitimate function of the university to suppress speech."

I am not asking President Brodhead to suppress anyone's speech. Indeed, for that reason I wanted to be certain that the media will be allowed in (which your letter assures me they will but, at student request, without cameras or tape-recorders). On the phone, but not in your letter, you also assured me that Duke is making provisions for safety and security in the event protestors turn up who want to exercise even more of our much valued free speech.

But, let me ask you: Do you consider the Palestine Solidarity Movement's hate speech against Jews and the Jewish state, and in favor of suicide terrorism, "vile" speech or not? I am no longer discussing the university's right to allow "unequal," "divergent," "unpopular" or "dissent(ing)" speech free and full expression on campus. I am talking about whether the Duke administration and faculty do or do not have an obligation to inform students as to whether what they've just heard in a Duke classroom or auditorium also happens to be "vile" and hateful speech, utterly lacking in objectivity, accuracy, or scholarship?

What if the upcoming conference at Duke was being organized by a group of pimps, traffickers, and pornographers, (who have a large following of tenured academic groupies) on campus; what if their speakers proclaimed that women and female teenagers had the right to choose to be "sex-workers," that the "work" was not harmful or even dangerous but was, instead, empowering? You would be able to find many academics, no doubt even at Duke, who would agree with these false and dangerous views. Thus, allowing academics to counter hate speech with a more expert version of the same hate speech is not enough. Similarly, if Duke held a Holocaust Denial conference in which the speakers were to say that Hitler did not murder European Jews or that only very few Jews were murdered, you would also be able to find academics who shared such views in more expert voices.

When you say that the Hillel-affiliated Freeman Center of Jewish Life at Duke will be providing counter programming, I must look at what that programming so far seems to be.

First, let me note that you do not mention the upcoming lecture of Daniel Pipes who was invited months ago by the Duke Conservative Student Union as their way of protesting the Palestine Solidarity Movement's on-campus conference. I understand that the Freeman Center has recently agreed to co-sponsor Professor Pipes's speech.

Second, I have been told (and you must correct me if I am wrong), that the Freeman Center will not be allowing any Israeli Jewish victims of terrorist violence to speak out and that the other such victims are not being allowed to target their attackers as Muslims or Arabs--even if that's exactly who they are.

Thus, I have been told that telling the truth is not "politically correct" at Duke. I hope that my information is wrong. I hope that the Freeman Center will have Israeli Jewish speakers as well as other speakers and that their ability to discuss who launched a terrorist attack against them is also accurate.

I have also been told that once a strong enough case is made to Duke about something that Duke has posted about this upcoming conference that is inaccurate or too controversial that Duke then makes some change (to its website for example). Thus, I am hoping that by my saying this, that the lineup of Freeman Center speakers may change and that they will all be allowed to speak both freely and truly.

Third, the Freeman Center's invitation to Yossi Beilin, (who I gather is not coming), and Avrum Burg, (who I gather is coming), does not reflect a commitment to provide balanced and diverse pro-Israel programming. Both esteemed gentlemen represent only the far left Israeli point of view. They also represent the views of those who tried and failed to achieve peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords--and whose every earnest effort was utterly rejected by Yasser Arafat who chose instead to launch a very bloody Intifada which has lasted for four years.

I have also been told by Rachel Fish of The David Project (which has had experience in just such on campus conferences) that she had to yell and scream to be allowed to make a Freeman Center sponsored presentation on October 16th and then only if she could fund herself.

To the best of my knowledge, the Freeman Center has not invited any Christian Arabs and Phoenicians who have lived under Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Arab League rule to speak about who the Palestinians really are and what they've done to their own people. This in my view is a serious mistake.

I am glad to hear that Dennis Ross will be speaking sometime during the school year. His most recent book certainly confirms that Arafat unilaterally rejected a serious peace proposal at both Camp David and at Taba. I am also glad that Alan Dershowitz will appear sometime during the school year as well. His book "The Case for Israel" is both passionate and accurate. I am a bit puzzled both about both Gary Bauer and Jamie Gorelick vis a vis the matter at hand.

I gather that the local Jewish federations do not want the Jews to "make waves." I gather that the Freeman Center does not want to depart from the "politically correct" party line either. Thus, telling me that Jews share the Duke administration view is not persuasive. Over the years, African-Americans can always be found who will say that they have never been discriminated against; one can find women who will say the same thing. This does not mean it is true.

In fact, the Palestine Solidarity Movement will be having a number of Jewish speakers, including the Rutgers student, Abe Greenhouse, who allegedly threw a pie at Israeli Minister Natan Sharansky as Sharansky was trying to exercise his free speech rights. Ora Wise, the Brooklyn based daughter of a rabbi, will also be speaking for the PSM. The Duke student who invited the PSM on campus I am told is a Jewish Israeli. Please confirm. The role of Jews on the humanitarian left and their motives to be the first to condemn the Jewish state should probably be the subject of a conference all it's own. Let me again note that neither Duke nor the Freeman Center has invited any Palestinians, or Arabs, either Christian or Muslim, who are strong Zionists and pro-democracy advocates.

Vice President Burness: Please, I beg you to consider hosting one of the three conferences I proposed to you in my first letter. I would help you with this. It would be the very highest road Duke could choose to take out of this ugly morass.

All best,



Dear Dr. Chesler:

I appreciated the opportunity to talk with you the other day and your gracious invitation "to correct any inaccurate information" in your recent article in FrontPageMag.com, "The Chesler Wars Come to Duke."

First, my response to what you defined as the two most important points:

[1] You wrote that the conference will take place "behind closed doors with no press allowed," and that "this is what the Palestine Solidarity Movement conference planners have demanded." The university is treating the PSM conference as it does all student conferences. Duke doesn't dictate to its students the content or structure of their events, or the speakers they must select. The student organizers have determined that the conference is open to anyone who wishes to register, up to a space limit of 500 people. They have also determined that members of the news media may register to attend, within that 500-person limit. In addition, the conference organizers are planning a press conference.

[2] Your related assertion, that Duke is prohibiting cameras and/or sound recorders, is also not accurate. Duke does not dictate whether cameras or recording equipment will be allowed at the conference. That is properly a decision for the student sponsors, consistent with Duke's policies that permit such restrictions. Such prohibitions are not uncommon. Just last month, the university honored a similar request of the distinguished playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who gave a public lecture on campus and requested that his speech not be recorded.

Let me turn now to a number of other inaccurate or misleading statements in your article:

You wrote, "Duke will be supporting a group (which is also known as the International Solidarity Movement)." Duke's understanding from multiple sources is that the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM), while related to the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), is a separate organization. The PSM is, in effect, a loose confederation of student groups at campuses around the country. It is indisputable that ISM members have participated in previous PSM conferences, but federal police authorities have confirmed for us that the organizations are separate and distinct and, equally important, that the PSM has no ties to known terrorists. It also may be true that ISM activists may be involved in PSM activities. But just as I would assume there might be individuals active in both the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee, that does not make them one and the same any more than the ISM and PSM would be one and the same.

You wrote that you are "even more distressed by Duke's failure, so far, to fund and host very different kinds of programs in this area." In fact, we are.

The Freeman Center for Jewish Life's "Joint Israel Initiative," in the words of its student organizers:

". supports the ongoing efforts towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and [those who] yearn for peace throughout the region. . . To accomplish this, the Israel Initiative is sponsoring a range of program and events in the coming year. We are working closely with Duke officials, local Jewish community leaders, and national organizations to create a wide range of activities that provide an unbiased perspective on the diversity of opinion within and outside the Jewish community. We are proud to announce that this year we will be bringing to campus Alan Dershowitz, Yossi Beilin, Gary Bauer, and Avram Burg."

You should know that the night before the conference, a Concert Against Terrorism has been organized by a number of student groups. And several nationally and internationally prominent speakers with expertise on terrorism, the Middle East, and the Israel-Palestine conflict-including former U.S. Ambassador and Special Envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross and Jamie Gorelick of the 9-11 Commission-have or will be speaking on campus as part of a year-long set of activities focused on these issues.

The prospect of this admittedly controversial conference has stimulated considerable discussion at Duke, which already has led to constructive discussion of possible solutions to what President Brodhead called "the historic inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to find a workable solution to their longstanding and awful conflict." Indeed, last night I spoke with a parent of a Duke student who reported that his daughter, who had not been active or particularly interested in Judaism since her Bat Mitzvah, had become interested in her religion once again and active in the programs of the Freeman Center because of the PSM conference. As he put it, while the PSM conference may be controversial, he was impressed by the effect it is having on students such as his daughter.

The balance of your letter, as well as most of our discussion, shows that we disagree on the university's role, as well as what may have happened at previous PSM conferences and what may be happen at this one. Fair enough. I have read your article, and I ask that you read the materials on Duke's Web site http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/psm/index.html, which provide information that many people have told us they find useful in understanding issues associated with this conference and Duke's decision to support our students in hosting it.

I do not dispute your words, " 'Free' speech is not always 'true' speech. Universities have an obligation to teach the truth as much as they may also wish to model tolerance for all speech, including that which bears no relationship to the truth."

In turn, I hope you will carefully consider President Brodhead's words.

"All ideas are not equal, but it is a foundational principle of American life that all ideas should have an equal opportunity to be expressed. Universities, in particular, must give wide latitude to free speech and free debate because the pursuit of truth through the encounter of divergent points of view is the very stuff of education. When universities get in the business of suppressing speech, however vile, it lends credence to the notion that it is a legitimate function of the university to suppress speech. A notion is thereby validated that then can be activated on another occasion-perhaps to suppress our own dissent or unpopular expression. The day we start making it easy to shut down others' opinions is the day we license a curtailment of freedom from which we could each suffer in our turn."

I acknowledge that the discussions at the student PSM conference inevitably will be heavily focused on issues from the Palestinian perspective. Similarly, I expect the activities sponsored by the Freeman Center will be focused on issues from the Israeli perspective. Our students and others will have an opportunity to learn from each of these programs, as well as the myriad of speeches and panel discussions by our faculty and outside experts. As a result, we hope they and other members of our campus community will be better educated and able to make up their own minds about these issues.

Again, Dr. Chesler, I greatly appreciate the opportunity you have given me to correct the inaccurate portions of your article, and especially your offer to have this response published in FrontPageMag.com.


John F. Burness
Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations
Duke University

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